HOWELL – A recent meeting of the Howell Township Council saw a former mayor criticize the current mayor and the current mayor call the former mayor’s comments comedic.
Joe DiBella, who served as mayor from 2004-08, questioned Mayor Theresa Berger’s leadership of the community during the public comment portion of the council’s April 2 meeting. He criticized Berger for what he called a lack of unity among the current governing body.
Howell’s council is comprised of three Republicans and two Democrats. Berger is one of the two Democrats.
DiBella said former mayors Bob Walsh, Bill Gotto, Tim Konopka and Harvey Morrell all had a sense of leadership in common.
“Frankly, I think we are now lacking that in the mayor’s chair, with all due respect,” DiBella said.
Berger, who was elected mayor in November 2016 and took office in January 2017, responded by saying, “thank you.”
DiBella took issue with the manner in which council meetings have been conducted. In Howell, the mayor runs the council meetings.
“These council meetings, in my view, are a case study in exactly the opposite of what Robert’s Rules of Order have in mind. To be perfectly candid, there is no rhyme or reason to the meeting. Rarely is there a motion followed by a crisp second. Rarely is there informed discussion and debate started with the person who made the motion, followed up by the person who seconded the motion,” DiBella said.
The former mayor said the council often seems “completely rudderless” and he said he attributes that to a lack of leadership.
“Tim Konopka was a Democrat, I served with him when I was a Republican councilman and what he did incredibly well was run a meeting and foster and harness cooperation among the members of the council,” DiBella said.
“You (Berger) represent this community and I have to tell you I am incredibly disappointed with the lack of leadership with respect to exactly what emulates from this room, which starts with the mayor,” he said.
“Regrettably, I think it is going to be incumbent on the four members of the council to take charge of your meeting and to redirect how you are interpreted by this community,” DiBella said.
He said the council members should put aside partisan politics because there is an obligation to make the right decisions on behalf of the community.
Two residents followed DiBella to the podium.
Paul Dorato, who serves on the Planning Board, thanked Dibella for “all the debt we are in.”
“Thank you very much because I have been out here 13 years (and) the $450,000 in debt service and all the bond payments we have to do, that kind of takes the concern. So thank you, Joe,” Dorato said.
Joan Osborne, who chairs the Howell Environmental Commission, said she was upset and described DiBella’s comments as a personal attack on Berger.
“My experience with the mayor, and coming to council meetings, is I think she has transformed the council and the way it treats its citizens who come and make public comments. When I first started coming to meetings, I was kind of appalled with the way citizens were treated and disrespected when they would come and ask questions,” Osborne said.
She thanked Berger for treating people who speak during council meetings with dignity and respect.
“I feel like (DiBella’s comment) was a personal attack and it sounded like (Berger) was being accused of being partisan by someone who came here with a partisan agenda,” Osborne said.
Osborne said she doubted DiBella ever contacted Berger prior to the meeting to indicate he had issues with the way council meetings are being conducted and to offer constructive advice.
After the meeting, Berger said she thought Dibella’s comments were comedic.